Fact and Fiction in Lee Daniels’ The Butler

The Butler (2013) Forest Whitaker (Screengrab)

Lee Daniels’ The Butler opens Friday. It’s sure to be a box office hit, as it contains a stellar cast, and the acting and screenplay are both phenomenal. It’s loosely based upon the life of Eugene Allen, who served as a butler in the White Houses for more than 30 years, and through eight presidents, but the movie is not a documentary. It’s rather a fictionalized account. Where does real life end and fiction begin in the movie?

Forest Whitaker plays the role of Cecil Gaines, the White House butler based on the life of Eugene Allen. He does a remarkable job, and Whitaker is sure to pick up the Oscar nod for his amazing and stellar portrayal of Gaines.

The entire ensemble cast are fantastic in their roles.Besides Whitaker, other stars include such big names as Mariah Carey, who plays Hattie Pearl; Vanessa Redgrave, as Annabeth Westfall; and, perhaps the biggest name of them all, Oprah Winfrey, as Gloria Gaines. Cecil’s wife.

Eugene Allen’s life, with all of the history he witnessed, was destined to become a movie, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler is one of the best movies of the year so far, without a doubt.

Just as Eugene Allen witnesses presidents making a series of decisions that impact the civil rights of himself and all black Americans, so does the fictional Cecil Gaines.

Seeing history through the perspective of Gaines, Daniels explores questions of civil rights and race through the decades of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

What is fact and what is fiction in Lee Daniels’ The Butler?

What is fact and what is fiction in Lee Daniels’ The Butler doesn’t change the fact that this movie is a Must See for all Americans.

However, if you’re curious to know what is factual as opposed to fictional in the movie, according to Eliana Dockterman in a recent Time magazine, one of the first differences between the fiction of the movie and the fact of Allen’s life is where he grew up.

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-Terence-Howard-Oprah-Winfrey

While the actual White House butler, Eugene Allen, was born and grew up on a Virginia plantation in 1919, this setting is substituted in the movie version with the fictional White House Butler Cecil Gaines being born and growing up in Macon Georgia, where he worked in the cotton fields.

Allen arrived in Washington, DC, during the Great Depression. The conflict that happens in the movie between Gaines’s parents and the white farmers for whom they work was added for dramatic effect — it didn’t actually happen.

Still, those scenes are an integral part of the movie, are artistically and creatively extremely well done, and they do serve their purpose of making the movie that much more dramatic.

Another place where the facts of Allen’s life are somewhat different from the fictional version of his life in the movie is that, in real life, Allen had a wife and one son, Charles allen, while in the movie, he is married, but has two sons.

The actual Allen met his wife, Helene, in Washington at a birthday party. Gaines, on the other hand, meets his wife, Gloria, at a Washington hotel where they both work previous to Gaines landing his job at the White House.

The way that Allen heard of the job opening was through a woman telling him about it in 1952. He wasn’t looking for a new job at the time, in that he was fine with the job he had, at a Washington country club.

Also, Allen did not begin working as a butler from Day One at the White House; rather, he started off as a pantry worker and was later promoted to the job of the butler.

Cecil Gaines, in the movie, gets his job as the White House butler after first serving as an administrator of the White House in a hotel restaurant.

One of the many instances where the facts of what happened in Allen’s life are accurately depicted in the movie is both the real and movie butlers receives a tie of President John F. Kennedy from Jacqueline Kennedy after JFK’s assassination.

As well, both butler versions were working in the kitchen of the White House on the day of Kennedy’s assassination, the same day Jacqueline presented both with a tie as a gift, and a memento.

Both Allen an Gaines get invited to Kennedy’s funeral, but both volunteer, instead, to stay behind a the White House, reasoning that someone had to serve the attendees as they returned from the funeral.

One place where there’s a major difference in the film’s depiction is that Charles Allen, Eugene’s son, was not the Black Panther and political activist that Gaines’s son is in the movie. Also, Charles never ran for a political office, whereas Gaines’s son does.

Though there was some tension between Allen and his son over certain civil rights issues, in real life Charles Allen worked as an investigator for the State Department and never ran for public office.

The movie’s Gaines, as well as the actual White House butler, Allen, were invited by President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan to a state dinner at the White House.

The state dinner was for the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Also, both Allen and Gaines are supporters of Obama when he runs for the office during the 2008 presidential election. Allen and his wife had been married 65 years at the time. He was given a VIP invitation to President Obama’s inauguration, according to the article in Times, and he cried as he watched the ceremony

While fact and fiction are mixed up and intertwined in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, that does not detract from the fact that it’s truly a modern cinematic masterpiece that is sure to win many awards and be a big box office hit.

 

Written by: Douglas Cobb

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7 Responses to Fact and Fiction in Lee Daniels’ The Butler

  1. joan loeffler September 1, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    I liked to movie very much. I knew going in that much of it was fiction but it was still very entertaining and it did show how things were during that time.

    Reply
  2. dd August 27, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    I enjoyed the movie but I was disappointed to find out about that quite a few parts were not factual.

    Reply
  3. Bea August 26, 2013 at 7:17 am

    The movie may have some fictional parts but the scene of the young Gaines life happened more offten than people want to admit.

    Reply
  4. Douglas Cobb August 24, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    Well…let’s say it’s very loosely based on the truth. I’d say that if someone is expecting it to be entirely true, they will likely be disappointed to learn that it’s not entirely true. It should, instead, be thought of as a work of cinematic art in its own right, maybe a little bit like Gone With the Wind, which is very fictional, though loosely based on the Civil War era. That might not be the best comparison, but it’s just an example.

    Reply
  5. Dennis Beetle.g August 24, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    I was so disappointed to discover that most of the movie is fictional. I expected something like “Backstairs at the White House.” There wasn’t` much screen time given to the Presidential Families. What a waste of talent. All the fantasy of the butler`s father being shot, his mother raped, his son dying in Vietnam and the other son`s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement and Black Panthers should have been cut because it was all made up. Why fool people, saying it is based on a true story when it is clearly is not!

    Reply
  6. lolaherder August 17, 2013 at 11:14 pm

    Don’t know now whether I will go see it as Hollyweird had to go and put in their own brand of fiction. If I wanted to see fiction, I would watch “Elysium”.

    Reply

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